A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with some of the members of the dark reggae/hard groove band from Maryland known as Lionize. The quartet recently played at NYC’s Webster Hall, where they opened for Fair To Midland. I talked with frontman Nate Bergman and keyboardist Chris Brooks at the show about touring, the writing process, and some of their influences and aspirations. Perhaps it’s their upbeat mentality or the overall sound they belt out but whatever the case may be, Lionize is the type of band that can be appreciated for what they do. The conversation is below.
You guys are about halfway through your tour. How’s it been going? Have there been any memorable shows thus far?
Chris Brooks: Yeah. I think the tour has been great so far. There’s been a lot of shows like this. This has been one of the better nights, I guess in terms of people, plus we’ve had a lot of trouble playing in front of people in New York in the past. So it’s good to come to the city and actually play in front of some crowds. Otherwise, we started out in New Orleans—that was pretty rad. I kind of wish we could have hit that a little later in the tour so we would all be kind of “buddy buddy” by then because that’s our favorite town to go to. But yeah, it’s been good! Can’t complain so far.
You mention that this has been a better crowd of people. What would be a rough estimate of the amount of people that you have been seeing at these shows with the band playing as openers?
CB: It’s been around about a hundred people a night.
Nate Bergman: Yeah, it’s about that. I don’t know the exact attendance numbers, but it’s been really cool to see the amount of people coming out to actually see us early in the shows. [It’s] awesome.
Since the release of your first album, 2005’s Danger My Dear, you guys have released an EP, Mummies Wrapped In Money, which featured guest vocals from Clutch’s Neil Fallon, and three more full-lengths. There seems to be no shortage of writing material for you guys. How do you find the time to collectively engage in the writing process with how often you go on tour?
NB: When we’re off tour we just rehearse every day, to give a short answer. Five days a week like a job. We go in at noon and we leave at five o’clock.
As with all great bands, there seems to be an evolution of the sound behind Lionize. Is there any sort of particular feel that you guys go for on each album?
CB: No. We tend to just write songs based around the lyrics that are coming out. Hank [Upton, bass] will write lyrics, or Nate will write lyrics and then we’ll kind of write tunes around what we’re dealing with. Lately it’s been a lot of psychedelic, comic book, “over the top” type of stuff, and it lends itself more to bigger and heavier tunes, so to speak, if that makes any sense at all.
Do you have anything to say about that, Nate?
NB: What he said is exactly right. I think it’s actually interesting how looking at the records—Superczar kind of comes sort of full circle with the first record because there are some heavier grooves on the first record and a little bit of a reggae influence, and then Mummies is still kind of the reggae funk thing, and then Spacepope is where the heavier riffs come in. Destruction Manual is, again, kind of a full circle. Superczar is like a conglomeration of all of it.
Who are your own personal influences as musicians? Nate, why don’t you go first?
NB: Anything soul, really. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke for vocal stuff, and then Sabbath, Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd… I mean, the basics, really.
How about you, Chris?
CB: I am more so from the Miles Davis school. A lot of Bill Evans, a lot of jazz stuff. It’s where I came from.
When it comes to playing live, do you guys often try and go out on a whim and improvise on your songs?
NB: It’s probably more structured like a jazz tune where we have a head and we know where we are going to jam, but the jams aren’t plotted out (laughs). I don’t know, Chris might be able to explain it better…
CB: We try to keep a pretty heavy improvisation element in the live set along within the records. I mean, just because the record is the one thing, it doesn’t mean that in the moment we didn’t improvise or jam on it. There’s a lot of spots, especially on Superczar, where the studio take is the jam that we played when we first started laying down drum and bass tracks. We find ourselves keeping a lot of the material and jams in that length or that form. Otherwise, there are sections of the songs where we kind of know that we are going to improvise on, or decide not to in that moment. We write a different set every night. The intros at shows come and go. Sometimes it’s a different intro. It is usually just something that we are working on that may eventually find its way into a song, or just something from rehearsal where we figure we’ve got 45 seconds of music, so we might as well just play it. It’s nice to just go out and play something instrumental, a really quick thing to warm up the crowd. We might have stolen the idea off of The Bakerton Group record with the 45 second intro, “The Time Horizon.” It is nice to come out and just blast into something, play it real quick and then just start the show.
How long have you guys been playing together?
CB: Probably about 10 years.
What have you guys found as a band that is most beneficial in your writing style?
NB: We do anything and everything to approach a song. Sometimes someone comes in with a more complete idea, whereas sometimes we sit and jam for an hour before we have anything. Sometimes we take four different parts of stuff we wrote a year ago. At the end of the day we’re all in one room writing together.
CB: Everything pretty much happens in the practice room. There’s nobody that goes away and sits down by themselves and flushes out things on their own. It all pretty much happens out of the jam in the practice room.
As far as recording goes, how do you guys feel about the idea of experimenting with different studios?
CB: The only time we’ve ever recorded in multiple studios was with that Spacepope record, and that was because we were recording it in Kingston. We didn’t have access to the same studio so we ended up doing that in three different studios, all being in Kingston, Jamaica, with the same producer. Other than that we’ve always recorded albums in one place. The place we record at now is the Magpie Cage in Baltimore, Maryland, with J. Robbins, and we do everything there. I don’t think we tracked anything anywhere else. All of our stuff, producers, and gear are there so we don’t really see any reason to move. We were recording to tape on this last record so we had the tape machine there. I guess the more Pro Tools-y and the more computer oriented, the less it matters—but we try to keep a pretty organic approach for the most part, so the one room thing kind of works for us.
Now this is probably my last question for the night, I don’t want to hold you guys up here…
NB: Yeah, Chris has got a burger waiting for him…
Haha, I know how that feels brother! Chris, earlier I had asked you if you guys had anything pressed to vinyl. Is there anything that you guys can see yourselves aspiring to do when it comes to vinyl?
NB: We will have everything that we’ve recorded on vinyl at some point within the next few years.
CB: Yeah, we’re hoping to get the vinyl out as soon as possible, it’s just a matter of getting it done.
Lionize will be on tour with Clutch in July. For more information, go to lionizemusic.com.